by Mark P. Bangert
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus
Hail, Mary, full of grace. Greetings, O favored one—and with that Gabriel declares every imagined way to God irrelevant, every religious and social taboo transcended, and every sadness and despair impotent.
Hail Mary, favored one. Favored, how? That makes us a little nervous. Favored, how? Question, question go away, come again another day.
In some respects Mary represents for Lutherans that one last difference between us and them—you know, the Catholics. Justification by faith—we've got that covered. Holy water is now holy for us too. We have smells and bells, chasubles and chants. But Mary? Best we not go there.
Reluctantly, perhaps, we give her some notice. There is this day, for instance, the Annunciation of our Lord (but notice that Mary is not in the headline); there is August 15 if anyone is interested in saints during the dog days of summer; for Latino Lutheran Christians December 12th offers an opportunity to acknowledge Our Lady of Guadalupe, and there is the fourth Sunday of Advent—though often that is tinseled in already, though, if not, then we focus on Mary's hit tune, the Magnificat—not a bad idea. That's about as close as we will let ourselves get to Mary, full of grace.
Is she worth more attention? Is she worth copes, and white, and Alleluias and sung Gospels with instruments and voices—especially in the midst of Lent?
Apparently. Long ago Christians, not inhibited by protestant nervousness, let themselves down into the deep mystery of the Incarnation, seeing Mary there as the mother of God. You do the math. And if Gabriel thought she was special, so special to deserve being greeted as the favored one, others thought of her, logically, as the queen of angels, and if so, then queen of heaven. And then there is the conclusion Luther penned to his commentary on the Magnificat: "May Christ grant us this through the intercession and for the sake of his dear Mother Mary. Amen." Hail, Mary, full of grace.
Little by little we may be on the way to reclaiming a sense of the honor and favor due to Mary. Even in this A-word (less) season, we have become bold, as Thomas Talley says, to exclaim "the liturgical privilege appropriate to the day's (this day's) dignity:" Alleluia, indeed.
But the Lutheran in us does not want to give up our apprehensions too quickly. "Full of grace" makes us nervous. Does that mean that she was so special, so irresistible that God couldn't pass her by? Or do we have here, as Luther suggests, a simple peasant girl whose faith is to be emulated and honored?
The answer, of course, is yes. Mary is so special because God caused her to be the recipient of God's love as she bore the Son of God—Jesus. She was given what no other could ever experience—bringing life to Immanuel, the One who by his death and resurrection overshadows us with grace and favor. Hail, Mary, full of grace.
Today we sang it again with Alleluias. Why today? Nine months of days—some of them shopping—until Christmas. You do the math.
That seems right, but it's really more complicated than that. As early as the fourth century, Christians from northern Africa reckoned March 25 to be the day on which Jesus died, the day on which he was placed in a tomb in which no one had ever been laid. But, following a pattern they believed to be true for all the great forebears, they reckoned as well that March 25 was also the day on which Jesus was conceived, in a womb never having conceived before. The whole history of redemption saturates this day, in other words. Christmas is simply a byproduct of March 25, not the other way around.
This is the day on which it all happened. A day full of grace and favor. Mary was the first to feel the kick in her womb, a kick that would turn this world upside down. She is therefore honored, favored, and graced.
Let it be, she said. Let it be, she said, giving her genes to the Son of God. Let it be, she said, giving us a reason for a detour in Lent. Let it be, we say, here on the threshold of Holy Week. Let it be as we watch and attend to that Son of God and Son of Mary make his way through death to life. We can only watch with outstretched arms as beggars, saying "Let it be," from the bottom of our grateful hearts.